Our Lady’s Island has been a place of pilgrimage for at least a thousand years. In the 6th century, St Abban is believed to have chosen Our Lady’s Island as the location for his monastery, and sometime in the following century it became a place of pilgrimage. It is by far the oldest – and second only to Knock in Co. Mayo – as the most significant Marian shrine in Ireland. Between mid-August and September over fifty thousand people visit the shrine. Pilgrims walk around the island reciting the rosary. The pilgrimage starts on the 15th of August and ends on the 8th of September with Masses twice daily at 3pm and 8pm, writes Paula Redmond.
Our Lady’s Island (Irish: Oileán Mhuire) is a small island in Co. Wexford, located a few miles south of Wexford town. The island is located within Lady’s Island Lake (Irish: Loch Tóchair) and is connected to the mainland by a causeway (tóchar) which gives the lake its Irish name. It is separated from the sea by a sand bar. There are some other islands and islets in the lake also.
It is one of the foremost pilgrimage sites in Ireland. Since the time of St. Patrick making pilgrimage to various shrines, both in Ireland and abroad, became common practice, and these journeys were made by the poor and the wealthy alike.
It is believed that St. Abbán founded the first ecclesiastical institution on Our Lady’s Island in the sixth century. One of the most famous monasteries founded by the saint was “Fionn-magh” or the “Bright Plain”. Scholars are divided as to where this site was located. However, some local historians believe that the monastery was situated on Our Lady’s Island and that it was dedicated to the Virgin Mary, thus giving the island its name. One of the reasons for this theory is that when Our Lady’s Island lake is seen on a bright summers day it resembles a bright plain.
There are no records of pilgrimages to the island prior to the Norman invasion. However a tradition existed in the general area (known as the Barony of Forth) since early Christian times. Edmund Hore was a local and editor of the Wexford Independent in the 1800s. He stated that “peasants would not have flocked to a site that wasn’t of importance before Norman invasion”.
In addition, the area seems to have held importance in pre-christian times when it was used during the August festival of Lughnasa. Pagan worship sites in the locality included two sun veneration sites at nearby Ballytrent and Carnsore Point. Ballytrent was renowned for its ráth or fort, which was the most extensive of its kind in Western Europe.
In a 1903 publication of Irish place names the island is referred to as “Cluain-na-mBan”, meaning the “meadow of the women”. This is possibly because pagan druidesses were based in this area. Following the introduction of christianity in Ireland many pagan sites were christianised.